The clouds rolled above, gray and magnificent, like the dirty bow of a great ship sailing overhead. The huge shadows they cast ran across the port and shaded the solid beams of wood a dark brown. Ships swayed in the circling waters of the dock, the lap of water against their hulls like a wet knock at the door.
The slap of boots against the sodden wooden beams mixed with shouts and the growing whistle of the wind. Men with broad shoulders and stiff necks sprinted between the docked ships, tying down ropes and tightening knots.
“Get up there!”
“You! Get over to the Pembrake!”
“Where’s the Dock Master?”
The inhabitants of Bridgestock were calling it the storm of the century, seeing in those tumbling clouds such a foreboding menace that windows were being taped shut and doors propped closed. The deep ominous color of the clouds was not the only cause for worry: along the headland, rattling through the streets and up the hill of the city, rushed a chaotic wind. It shook signs, brought branches crashing from trees, and sent buckets, plant pots, and anything not tied down tumbling through the streets.
With ferocity like that, this storm had to be bad.
From across the street, adjacent to the port, shoppers stopped to stare at the frantic work of the wharfies. Old ladies, their baskets laden with bread and fruit, arched their necks toward the swaying ships, casting their wizened eyes toward the sprinting clouds. Two old men packed away their card table and, with shakes of their heads, hurried indoors. A greengrocer recruited a passing friend to help him pack away his glistening vegetables, offering a free pumpkin for a quick hand.
Windows and doors were being closed, and lights were flickering on. The greengrocer handed over the pumpkin and stared at the sky. He whistled and, tucking his cap further over his head, retreated inside.
Though the city of Bridgestock no longer accepted witches, its inhabitants could not help but be reminded of an old witch’s proverb. Storms change things, and the bigger the storm, the more it changes – whatever you don’t hold on to, you will lose to the wind and rain. Of course, the Bridgestockians took this to mean that their windows would be broken and their frontages dented from hail. The proverb had a much deeper meaning. A storm could break a window, but it could also break a destiny, especially one that was not tied down.
It was midday in the city of Bridgestock, but the town was already growing dark.
Abigail Gail, Abby for short, bucked the trend. As people ducked their heads against the wind and hurried up the avenues leading away from the port, she walked toward it. In a billowing patchwork skirt and a thick black top, she dodged the people by walking half in the gutter, a broomstick held in one hand and a basket of cloths, soaps, and sponges in the other. Beside her, up on the pavement, trotted a black cat. The cat had an imperious look glinting in its golden eyes.
“You don’t have to look at me like that, Charlie,” Abby said under her breath, not turning around. “A job is a job.”
The cat flicked its tail twice.
“Do you want to eat tonight, or what?” Abby ducked to the side as a large man rushed past offering her an odd look, which she ignored.
Charlie kept trotting forward but turned his head toward her and twitched his whiskers.
She laughed. “Well, at least we can eat tonight, which is a relief.”
Abby was a slim girl, some would say painfully thin – and on that, she would agree. It was not a fashion choice, but a result of her even slimmer money purse. Her eyes were gray, her hair a tousled sandy-blond mess. Her body was always swamped under the clothes she wore. She never bothered to take them in, hoping that someday she might be able to fill them out again.
She had a young face, though it was always set with a melancholic frown that added years to her. She would aim for a severe, perhaps strict grimace, but she could never make her eyes glare right – so she’d end up with a nervous, somewhat sad look. That was the same with anything Abby did – she would try for something and end up getting something else. She would want something but always receive the opposite. It was almost as if Lady Luck was scowling so hard at Abby that she would be doomed to misfortune for the rest of her life.
Abby’s destiny was not a fortunate one.
Abby and Charlie walked past a grand old building set into the wall and dodged past the people milling around the doorway watching the ships sway under the swathe of gray clouds looming overhead.
“Excuse me.” She tried to duck around a group of men who had chosen that moment to pour out of the two swinging doors. They were all dressed in Royal Navy uniforms and were thin-lipped with worry.
“Sorry, love,” a large man apologized as he bumped into her, knocking her backward.
“Oh.” She somehow righted herself and tried to dodge around him, but soon found herself in a sea of men all pouring out of the doors. She ground to a halt, Charlie tucking in behind her legs to prevent himself being trampled.
“Coming off the headland – did you hear the guy in the bar? Said he’d never ever heard wind like that before.”
“Flattened several fishing ships out in the deeps this morning, and it’s only getting worse.”
“God, look at those clouds!”
“You hear what the old sea dog was saying in there? Said a storm like this changes destinies, what do you reckon he meant by that?”
“I reckon he meant he wanted another beer.”
Abby had no choice but to listen. She was stuck right in the middle of what felt like an entire ship full of sailors. Their worried, wavering words were bouncing around like the roiling clouds above.
“Okay, okay,” a deeper, more officious tone boomed from somewhere near the doors, “save your doomsday talk.” The owner of the voice pushed forward.
He must be an ogre, Abby thought, or a troll to make headway through this throng of huge men. For her, it was like being packed into a tin full of muscle-bound, stripy-uniform-clad sardines. It didn’t help that Abby stood a full two heads shorter than most of the men, though they did provide an excellent windbreak.
The sailors either couldn’t see her or thought she was some kind of peculiar patchwork growth on the sidewalk. She could feel Charlie start to fret behind her and half wanted to grab her broomstick and rise up above the throng like a feather caught in an updraft.
That would not be smart.
Someone pushed through the men in front of her and came to a sudden stop, as Abby had her face to the sky, shooting a longing look at the mob-free air above her.
“Do I know you?”
She snapped her gaze down and blinked. Everyone turned to look at her. If she had been invisible before, she was now a giant black dot on pure white paper.
“Abby,” she squeaked.
The man in front of her, dressed in a crisp white uniform, looked sideways, rumpling his brow with confused curiosity. She guessed he was from the South Islands with his dark tanned skin and muscular build. He had green eyes, so somewhere in there he must have Westland or Northland heritage. She deduced he was the one in charge, what with the three brass bands shining on his collar and the way he passed through the packed crowd with ease. She also guessed, with a gulp, that “Abby” wasn’t the answer he was looking for.
The skin on the back of Abby’s neck prickled the way it always did before she expected something. It was a witchy sense she could count on, for Abby’s neck always knew what would happen next. Whoever this man was, her neck appeared to be telling her he was important.
“Excuse me?” He cocked his head to the side, his pale green eyes thin slits of bewilderment.
“I’m stuck.” She pointed to herself. “I can’t get past….” She tried to look anywhere but at the man in front of her. Her mind raced through the set of possibilities as to why this man, who she had never met before, could be making her neck itch like a thousand ants dancing over the skin.
“Oh.” The confusion lifted from his face, replaced with a kind, broad smile. “Please excuse us, Abby.” He stepped back and turned around to address the men surrounding them. “Alright, get off the pavement, guys; you’re blocking it up.”
His words were like a magic icebreaker, tearing the throng of sailors asunder. Abby turned to walk away, and she made full eye contact with the man. He was looking at her with narrowed, but friendly eyes, almost as if he had seen her somewhere before. He looked away – distracted by something or bored by her appearance – and the tingle on her neck passed as if it had never been at all.
She hurried forward. It was like coming out into the light after being stuck in the deepest of caves. Men parted before her like curtains furling back from a window.
A touch of embarrassment warmed her cheeks as she walked through the last of the crowd.
“Sorry, Abby,” several sailors called as she passed.
“Yeah, sorry about that.”
“Why are you carrying a broom?” One of the last sailors said to her. “Anyone would think you were a witch.”
It was always the same. Always the same. A stab of panic raced across her chest, and she snapped her shoulders in as if making herself a smaller target. She gripped onto her broom until her fingers threatened to shatter the wood into a thousand splinters. “I’m a window cleaner,” she muttered without looking back.
“Pearson,” she heard the man in charge snap. “You’re out of line.”
“I’m just saying what we’re all thinking, sir. The Colonel tells us to be alert.”
“Well, the Colonel isn’t your commander – I am.”
“But he’ll be King soon.”
“And I’ll still be your commander,” the man said one final time.
Within moments she had left the group behind, though she did turn one last time to catch a glimpse of the man who was a commander and the cause of her itching neck. He met her gaze, and his gaze was no longer friendly. Whether he thought her to be a witch or not, it was plain that even the idea of it disgusted him. That was the standard reaction of any Bridgestockian.
Abby felt disappointed at his reaction. She couldn’t tell why, but now her neck was tingling like a fire was crackling under the skin. Something felt wrong about this situation….
She glanced down at Charlie when they were far enough away. His tail was still a shock of erect fur. “That was close.” He bared his teeth. “Home. Now.”
Abby breathed into a smile. It was always that way, but, no, it hadn’t been close. There were no pitchforks for one, no burning torches. No one had tried to tie her up and throw her off a cliff or lock her in a cave with a monster. They hadn’t threatened to call the Palace authorities and have her dragged before the Queen. They hadn’t even tried to break her broom.
That had not been close…. It had been unnerving, though. Witches in Bridgestock were banned, and its citizens brought it upon themselves to enforce that ban and shun all who even looked witch-like.
Such was Abby’s life.
She had moved to this city with the kind of innocence only a new witch can draw on. She’d been 18. Sure, she’d heard the stories, heard the rumors that, in some parts, witches had become unpopular – something to do with an assassination that had led to a royal decree. She hadn’t believed the stories. No one could hate witches, because they were so darn useful! In her own village, high amongst the mountains of the Eastland, witches were revered. Baskets of bread, fruit, and honey had been left at her door the day she’d lifted her first curse, not a burning bottle of alcohol.
Witches cured, healed, blessed, and protected. What wasn’t to like? How could a witch have anything to do with an assassination? Who would even believe that?
Abby did not remember her decision fondly to come to Bridgestock. It had been on her first day as a fully-fledged witch. She’d been brimming with enthusiasm – for that was the day she would be given her territory. She’d thought she’d get somewhere nice and close, somewhere local, perhaps within an easy broom flight of her parents.
No, the Crone had something special for her.
Once a witch was given her territory, she was supposed to be bound to it for life. It would become her lifeblood, her reason for living. It was a witch’s duty to care for her hamlet, town, vale, or city, to ensure its history would be great and yet good. Unfortunately, as she was going to find out, her area would have a festering wound in its side. One that had changed its history and usurped its people, turning them bigoted, aggressive isolationists.
That wound was the Witch Ban.
If it was a witch’s duty to ensure her city remained on a path of good, then how in the pleck was she supposed to change the Witch Ban? How in the world could she care for a town that shunned her existence?
Abby had not known then how impossible her task would be.
If she’d had a choice in the matter, or knowledge of the Ban and its effects, she would never have come. She hadn’t had a choice, though – a witch’s territory was decided for her by the senior witch of the coven – the Crone.
In Abby’s case, it was Ms. Crowthy.
Ms. Crowthy had pulled her aside at the clan meeting and peered at her for a good minute through the moonlight. “Something special for you, Miss Gail. Yes, I think you need something different, something challenging.”
Abby had stared back, stared right into the railroading gaze of the Crone. A stupid thing to do; you don’t meet the eyes of a crone without the protection of a half-meter of frosted glass. She’d had a headache for at least a week afterward.
“You got a problem, young Abby: your destiny ain’t in these hills, and it ain’t an easy one. I consulted the waters this morning when I was drawing up the assignments… I saw something interesting about you, very interesting. There was a storm in my teacup, child, and I’d say there’s a storm in your future, too. One of them big ones. I saw my tea-leaves beating around in that cup all wild and loose, and I said to myself this has something to do with young Abby. You’re all loose, child, you need to be tied down to something concrete, something hard. You’re destined even, I think.”
Abby had nodded. A skilled witch didn’t need to look at the way tea leaves settled in the bottom of an empty cup to read the future. If she knew her trade – and the Crone was the best witch in all the mountains – then she could look at the way the leaves floated to open her second sight. It was in the way they moved. You can’t predict the movement of time by staring at a stationary object. The gushing waters of a stream, the whipping clouds above, the way a scarf floats to the ground – these were far more effective. Telling the future isn’t so much about what happens, but how it will happen.
So Abby had sucked in her lips and directed her frightened gaze over the Crone’s shoulder.
“You are going away, Miss Gail.”
“Away?” Abby had shot a hesitant look at the other young witches still milling about the fire and chatting. “Where?” Away sounded like it would be at least a day’s broom flight, she’d thought.
“Bridgestock City, on the north coast of the Westlands.”
“Ha?” That had been the best thing Abby could think of at the time. She had a vague idea of geography. There was her mountain village, then the several villages around her, then a couple more that were really far away. Westlands, she’d heard from the baker’s daughter, was at least as far as the ends of the Earth, if not further.
“I’ll give you a map, child, to help you find it.”
Gosh, it sounded like it would be at least two day’s solid flying, Abby had thought.
“Now I’d only fly at night and keep yourself high so as to avoid unwanted attention from rambling villagers.”
Three day’s flight then?
“You take that Charlie with you; you’ll need a good head up around your shoulders, even if it isn’t your own.”
“Now as soon as you get down from the Mountains, I suggest you book yourself a ticket on the train, dear. It’s quite a penny, but you’ll be too tired to fly all that way. I’ve left the money at your mother’s – don’t go spending it on herbs and charms, you hear?”
Abby had nodded, her brain giving up on measuring her impending journey in broom-flight days.
“Now, when you get to Bridgestock, you’ll have to make your own way setting up your business and all. The last witch there… well… ain’t there no longer. They haven’t had one in those parts for a good long year. Don’t let that put you off. Persist, child; they’ll need you soon enough. You’ll have something very important to do in that city, something big. You’ll be stopping something, I shouldn’t wonder, and fixing something, and making some things never be. And that should be a lot of hard work.”
Abby had listened in a daze as the Crone had filled her in on various other details of what to do in Bridgestock. Abby’s brain had closed down for the most of it, and even now, with the benefit of living in Bridgestock, she still couldn’t remember half the advice. Most of it had been along the lines of stay away from boys: boys in taverns, boys on the ports, boys on the streets, and, above all, boys in competition for your affection.
One tiny snippet of the conversation, however, was as clear as when the Crone had uttered it with a sideways glance at the full moon. “One other thing, young Abby. Witches… well, they… what I mean to say is, you won’t be popular. You see, witches are banned in Westlands, especially in Bridgestock.”
Now, with both her feet on the tessellated streets of Bridgestock, Abby lived the Witch Ban.
Unpopular. Unpopular? Witches were hated. Her entire train carriage had emptied when she’d told them she was a witch and had offered to fix an old gentleman’s snore. The man in question had growled at her as he’d left. Then there had been the incident in the port town of Halit when she’d rescued that cat from the tree. The child who’d owned the cat had burst into tears, and the mother had chased Abby down the street taking swipes at her with a broom.
Perhaps the scariest incident had been with the guards on the ferry that had taken her to Bridgestock. A contingent of Royal Guards from the Palace had boarded on official Royal duty and had checked each passenger for contraband. When the Captain of the Guard had reached her, he’d leaned down – eyes taking in her outfit, cat, and broom – and had brought his face in 20 centimeters from her own.
“Are you a witch, young’n?”
“Cause if you is a witch, we’ll throw you overboard.”
That had been her first experience of the Guards, but not her last. The Guards were vicious, mindless bullies who received direct orders, not from the Queen, but from the biggest bully of all – the Colonel. Abby didn’t know much about him, just that his hate for witches ran so deep it infected even the walls of the city.
When she’d made it to Bridgestock, for one reason or another, she’d found herself in the roughest looking area she’d ever seen. Granted, she only had a mean section of pine forest back home to compare it to, but this section of Bridgestock trumped the wolf dens and pine-needle covered cliffs she could conjure in her memory.
It was dark and damp like the back of Ms. Crowthy’s laundry, and it smelt of sea air, disturbed dirt, and animal fat. The houses were all packed together with a fingers width between them. Some of them were built into the great stone walls that were cut into the hill of Bridgestock, which mounted, layer by layer, up to the palace beyond.
It was cramped and stifling. There were no plants to speak of, save for a suspect green mold that covered the gutters. No animals either, despite that terrible smell, except the occasional harsh call of the gulls.
She hadn’t planned on staying. Ms. Crowthy had warned her about “the slumps.” She said they were terrible places, and that if Abby were to find herself in one, she should hit anyone who spoke to her over the head with her broom, especially boys. Abby had pondered this advice as she’d huddled next to a wall watching some of the largest, most menacing men and women she had ever seen walk past, and concluded that if she even tapped somebody with her broom around these parts, they’d reply in kind with a sledgehammer.
She would later find out, or learn by experience rather, that the people of Bridgestock were a confused lot. It wasn’t that they were not nice to each other; she had witnessed remarkable generosity between them. However they were quick to hate, quicker to judge, and quickest to shun. The license to despise witches had enabled other derogatory views to take root. South Islanders, Eastlanders, roamers, desert people, Elogians – each day the list would grow.
The Witch Ban had started it all. It allowed the hate to settle and disseminate.
Though it was her job as resident witch to fix it, she couldn’t. She was one witch in a city of people who, if they found out she was among them, would eliminate her.
So, for the most part, six years after her arrival, Abby Gail had settled into Bridgestock in the only way she could – by pretending she was not a witch at all. It continued to be hard. Every time a child whispered that word to its mother as they passed her on the street, every time an old lady or a passing fisherman looked sideways at her broomstick and black cat, and every time a Royal Guard gave her a narrow-eyed stare. She could feel the hate, and it hurt.
“I thought you said we could go home!” Charlie glared at her from the base of a tree.
“I never said anything of the sort. I have to work, Charlie – that’s how we eat, in case you’ve forgotten.” Abby squeezed out a sponge and glanced up at the mottled-gray and navy-blue sky.
“But, Abby, it’s blowing a gale, and just look at the sky! It’s going to split in two any moment and drown us all.”
“It’s only mid-afternoon.” She looked around to check no one was watching, and she drew a quick protective charm in the suds on the pane of glass she was working on. Just a bonus the residents who employed her to wash their windows received… not that they knew it. “Trust me, this storm won’t hit ‘til at least quarter-past-seven. Once I finish up with Mrs. Hunter’s windows, we can head home with plenty of time to spare.”
“Mrs. Hunter? How can her windows be dirty again?”
“They were never really dirty to start with,” Abby said. Mrs. Hunter was her most regular client, and if it weren’t for the old dear, Abby would have starved years ago.
“You know, I think that lady is onto something.” Charlie crossed in front of the tree, trying to find a spot out of the wind. “She’s always got you over, and you always manage to do a really good job, even reaching the top windows on your broom – what if she suspects you’re a witch?”
Abby scratched at a patch of stubborn dirt. “Of course she doesn’t. Mrs. Hunter is simply a sweet old dear who needs a friend. What with her son in the Navy and her husband dead, I think she just wants company in that huge old house. And I just happen to be company who also washes the windows. And I’m always careful to use the broom only when I know no one is watching. Give me some credit, Charlie.”
Charlie tilted his head to the side and shook. “And what about that bracelet you fixed, you said it was magic? Strong magic. What do you think an old dear is doing with something like that? Don’t you think it might be a trap?”
Abby paused and took a hurried breath. Charlie sure was making her irritable today. What with this wind and her constant niggling sense that something was on the horizon – she didn’t need to be distracted by Charlie’s conspiracy theories. Not that she hadn’t thought them herself. “I don’t think it’s a trick… I think she just thought it was a trinket…. Look I don’t know, Charlie, sometimes I do think she knows I’m a witch, and she doesn’t care….” Abby stared into the sparkling glass.
“Oh right, of course she doesn’t care – she’s only a rich old lady living on Esquire Street with all the other rich fascists who ruined our lives! And what about all those teas you take her – that’s suicide, Abby; she’s bound to be onto us.”
“She asked for them, Charlie…. And it felt good to do something vaguely witchy for once.”
“Pleck that, Abby!” Charlie twitched his ears flat and swooshed his tail.
“Don’t swear.” She stood back from the glistening window and checked it from several angles. “To be honest, I don’t think it matters. Mrs. Hunter… well, I’ve always suspected she was a little different… she told me about those dreams she’s been having, and they sounded almost like second sight. I couldn’t just leave her without a cup of sweet basil tea, could I? They’d consume her every waking moment. I am a witch, and I have to look after my people even if they don’t know I’m doing it.”
“You could look after yourself first, Abby – that sounds like a much safer policy. Leave Mrs. Hunter to her dreams and windows.”
“No,” Abby was surprised by the far-off quality of her voice, “something has always told me it’s important for me to know Mrs. Hunter….”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “Oh great, there’s that faulty second sight of yours again. Do you know why it’s important, or when, or what you should do?”
“No.” Abby bit her lips and sighed at Charlie. “Don’t tease me like that; of course I don’t. If I did, I’d save myself a whole lot of trouble.”
“That’s your problem, Abby – all you know is how to find trouble. For instance, why aren’t we going home? Would you just look at those clouds?”
“It will only be a storm, trust me – it won’t be important at all.” Abby looked away. She hadn’t wanted to worry Charlie, but she had felt something off about this storm. Something was gathering in those clouds, something big.
A gull cried as it circled overhead, making Charlie prick up his ears and sniff the air. “You should hear what the birds are saying, Abby! Storm of the century that one just squawked – the century!”
She wasn’t about to buy into that. She was a witch, after all; she knew what happened when you called a storm “the storm of the century” – it would start getting ideas. If people kept on talking about the storm of the century – then that’s what they’d get. They’d convince the clouds and rain that they could do something horrible. If everyone called it the storm of the century, then everyone would prepare for it to be huge and life changing – and the storm would do just that, it would change lives. So if everyone in Bridgestock went around saying they were in for trouble, then the whole city would be in for trouble.
Witches are wary of storms; storms can change destinies. If the storm was big enough, it could rewrite history in a clap of thunder – for good or worse.
Abby shook her head one final time, her mousy-blond tangled tresses brushing against her face. “Everything will be fine. This is not the storm of the century.” She straightened her skirt with a firm hand. “I’m the witch of Bridgestock, and nothing will go wrong on my watch.”
Abby looked up at the clouds one final time. She wished something would go right for once, though.
The rest of The Witch and the Commander Episode One is currently available from most ebook retailers.